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Being President, Washington DC

29 December 2016

The new man in Washington has one of the most important jobs on the planet, and it has accumulated numerous quirks, traditions and privileges over the years. Here’s what lies ahead for Donald Trump in the US capital...

HOW IT STARTS Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States will take place at noon on January 20, but that doesn’t mean he gets to play golf until Barack Obama hands over the keys. To hit the ground running, president-elect Trump will be looking to fill 30 positions across his cabinet and senior White House staff before taking residence in the Oval Office.

“For a newly elected president the transition is a time of delicious chaos… the 11-week span that lies ahead of them will be seen for what it is – a brief flash of time that is far, far too short for them to do what must be done before assuming the awesome responsibility of governing the most powerful, largest, most complex and important institution on Earth,” says Martin Anderson, author of Revolution: The Reagan Legacy.

Senior positions usually go to campaign staff, with behind-doors meetings and political expediency helping fill the rest. Most presidents-elect aim to name their cabinets by Christmas Eve in a bid to reassure the stock markets and calm a nervous electorate. Mind you, having a stocking filled with politicians is no guarantee you’re going to wake up with a successful administration. Richard Nixon had most of his nominations in place a week after being elected, while Jimmy Carter set up an elaborate series of interviews, requiring everybody to come out to his home in Georgia. Ronald Regan delegated the entire process to his chief of staff, Ed Meese, who filtered nominees through a “kitchen cabinet” of Reagan’s friends to judge if they’d get along with the president.

Once the names are decided, they’re sent to the senate for approval – at which point the real politics begin in earnest. If senate doesn’t like the nominee, or the president, they can make the task an ordeal, as happened to Bill Clinton who had three nominees for the same job rejected. In contrast, Nixon had all but one of his cabinet nominations approved during a 20-minute session.

Alongside selecting his cabinet, Trump will be receiving national security briefings from the White House and putting the finishing touches to his legislative agenda and inaugural speech, while his staff get busy redecorating the White House.


Most of the furniture and fittings in the White House are so historic that the building requires its own permanent curator to account for every candlestick and chair. Surprisingly though, new presidents get a lot of leeway when it comes to decorating their new home. During the transition period, the president can choose new furniture, curtains, and even their own carpet for the floor in the Oval Office. Artwork is selected from the White House’s own collection, or can be borrowed from museums for the duration of the president’s term in office. While picking out lamps might seem merely aesthetic, it’s worth pointing out that many of these items carry immense significance.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a bust of Winston Churchill to George W Bush, who placed it beside his door. Barack Obama removed the statue and replaced it with a bust of Martin Luther King, prompting a media backlash in the United Kingdom, which considered it a slight, and took it as a sign of the deteriorating relationship between the two countries.

The first family have similar freedom in the residence (they live on the third storey of the White House), though rules are tighter for historic and public spaces. If the family fancies getting their paint brushes out in these rooms, they need the permission of the Committee For The Preservation Of The White House – a body established by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As an unwritten rule, these rooms, along with the state rooms, are generally refurbished once a decade, often with funds from the White House Historical Association.


No law dictates that the president must live in the White House, though every previous commander-in-chief has settled there. “In my mind, there are two reasons presidents stay in the White House,” says historian Evan Phifer, of the White House Historical Association. “Number one is the White House is a national symbol to the presidency. And the second is, in the White House, everything is there. They have security and they have the working space to accommodate a working president.”


Ever wondered what the president actually does? Barack Obama told Newsweek back in 2009: “I’m a night owl. My usual day: I workout in the morning; I get to the office around 8.30-9am; work till about 6.30pm; have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids and put them to bed about 8.30pm. And then I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11.30pm. Then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed about midnight, 12.30am – sometimes perhaps a little later.”

As a job not renowned for its downtime, it’s little wonder presidents typically bring their hobbies to their workplace. Dwight Eisenhower constructed a putting green on the White House lawn in 1954. The Kennedys commissioned a swimming pool; Truman built a bowling alley underneath the driveway, and Obama added a basketball court. There’s also a private cinema, to which presidents can request advance screenings of new movies.

It’s also worth noting that while there’s technically no limit on the amount of holidays a president can take, they still receive security briefings every morning, and usually end up travelling in the US, rather than anywhere exotic, due to security concerns.


“Everything’s provided for them so they really don’t need money,” says Thomas Whalen of Boston University. “Kennedy didn’t carry any cash at all, even before he was president. His friends would have to foot the bill for the privilege of hanging out with him.”

If caught short, secret service typically pays out of their own pocket, and they’re reimbursed when they return to the White House, though recent presidents have been wary of having somebody else foot the bill when the cameras are on. Ronald Reagan was photographed paying for fast food with a US$20 note, while George HW Bush showed his credit card to a little girl who doubted his claim to being president. More recently, the idea of the president going cashless has been used to comic effect, with both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton telling stories of their credit cards being rejected in restaurants. Rather than turn to the secret service, Obama got his wife, Michelle, to pay on his behalf.


Previous presidents have described the White House as everything from a “glamorous prison” to “the best public housing I’ve ever seen”. In truth, it might better be described as a piece of clockwork, with the first family popping out at regular intervals.

“Every evening, while I took a bath, one of the maids would come by and remove my clothes for laundering or dry cleaning,” wrote Nancy Reagan in her autobiography, My Turn. “The bed would always be turned down. Five minutes after Ronnie came home and hung up his suit, it would disappear from the closet to be pressed, cleaned or brushed. No wonder Ron used to call the White House an eight-star hotel.”

Ninety-six people work full-time in the residence, and there are another 250 part-time employees, including butlers, maids, chefs, plumbers, doormen, and florists. Overseeing all of this is the chief usher – a job so prestigious that the average length of service is 20 years. Don’t bother checking the White House website for jobs though. Most residential positions are filled by word of mouth, with current employees vouching for new hires. As most people spend decades working in the White House, grandparents and their grandchildren are often found working side by side, one training the other.

On inauguration day, the staff say goodbye to the previous family in the morning, then immediately begin redecorating the White House per the new president’s wishes. By the time he arrives in the afternoon, it’s like he’s lived there his entire life.


“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Hillary Clinton told ABC during her presidential bid. “We had no money when we got there and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy.”

This statement brought incredulity at the time, but it wasn’t just the Clintons who left the White House worse off financially than when they arrived. A destitute Harry Truman complained he couldn’t afford return postage to answer letters once he left Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s estimated a modern election costs the candidates around US$10 million per state they campaign in, and while much of this is paid for by donors, they still must foot part of the bill. And the White House isn’t an all-inclusive resort.

“Nobody had told us that the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries,” wrote Nancy Reagan in her autobiography, describing how an itemised bill would arrive every month for them to sign.

Though the first family don’t have to pay for utilities – which seems fair given how many people work in the White House – they’re expected to pay their own way out of an annual salary, just like any other American family. Since 2001, the president has earned a US$400,000 per year, along with a US$50,000 annual expense account, a US$100,000 non-taxable travel account, and US$19,000 for entertainment.

It’s a lot of money, but the pressure’s immense. Writing in her autobiography, first lady Laura Bush – wife of George HW Bush – describes the stress of knowing every outfit she wore was going to be photographed and dissected in the media. As a result, she had a blow-dry and professional makeup applied every day, out of her own pocket.

“There were some costs that I was not prepared for,” wrote Bush. “I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the expectations for a first lady.


In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act to “maintain the dignity” of the office by ensuring former presidents didn’t have to get a real job. Former presidents are paid a cabinet secretary’s wage of US$205,700 per year for life, and given Secret Service protection. Alongside these perks, they also receive an office, staff and expenses for life. President George W Bush received an allowance of nearly US$1.1 million in 2015, according to the General Services Administration. Mind you, this is all peanuts compared to the money a former president can earn from memoirs and guest speaking.

Bill Clinton received six figures for his speeches, and was paid US$15 million for his book, My Life, in 2004. Rumours suggest Barack Obama will earn between US$25 – $45 million for his autobiography.